Jun 242024

This the third review of a rum from Montanya distillers after the interesting white Platino and the somewhat polarising 3YO “Exclusiva” (I never got around to the 4YO “Valentia” and the “Oro” is in the queue). Montanya is that forward looking Colorado-based distillery that made lots of rum waves in the last decade; founded in 2008, it was run by Karen Hoskin before the company was acquired by CRN Ventures in December 2023. Since CRN is made up of head distiller Megan Campbell, former head distiller and operations lead Renée Newton, and brand strategist Sean W Richards (who one imagines is there for marketing purposes) and only has this one asset, then I guess it was either a takeover or a divestment by Ms. Hoskin.

This rum, therefore, predates the change in ownership six-plus months ago, and if the almost complete lack of a redesign of the website aside from a notice of The Event (to say nothing of there being no mention of the Querencia at all) is anything to go by then I guess it’s business as usual. Although I must say that Karen had a visibility and presence in the universe which may have been underestimated as a selling tool, because not a whole lot has been heard about the company or its rums in a while.

Anyway. The Querencia is a rum named after an area in a bullring where the bull makes his defensive stand (interesting naming choice….). It is the only  high proof Montanya has made, is seven years old (their oldest rum) and is, as noted above, curiously absent from their webpage – partly because it’s only sold at their company tasting room and partly because it’s a single barrel release (of 396 bottles) back in December 2021. 

The production stats can be assumed to be pretty much on par with others in the portfolio: the Lula Sugar Mill co-op provides the complete residue from the minimal juice processing they do — raw unrefined molasses and raw unrefined granulated cane sugar — which then gets open-air fermented for around a week, before going through the 400L direct-fire Portuguese pot still (the newer US-made still that was installed in 2021 had not seen output at the time this rum was issued). The distillate was double matured: first aged in an American white oak barrel, that previously held Colorado Whiskey from Laws Whiskey House, and then finished for somewhat under a year in a Ex-Pedro Jimemez Sherry Cask. Final release bottled at 50%.

What then, is it like? If you recall, the Exclusiva was intriguing mishmash of competing aromas: the Querencia is similar but I think somewhat better: the ageing does show up and asks to be counted here and moderates what its younger sibling had: initial aromas are of black and red peppers, a sort of musky dirty dishwater hint (thankfully brief), followed by a smorgasbord of dust and cardboard, and a nice series of sharp and tangy fruits: strawberries, pineapples slices, ripe cherries and gooseberries, closing up shop with sage, dill and a pepper-heavy vegetable soup.

Tastewise, not very traditional either, just nicely assembled: cucumbers in cane vinegar, plus some minerally, ashy, iodine-y notes, well balanced off by 7-up, cola and dill. The taste is more sour than sweet, though there is enough of the latter as well (cherries, ripe mangoes, peaches in syrup, that kind of thing), even a dash of Thai peppers, and smoky red paprika. The finish doesn’t attempt anything new just brings the fruitier sweet and sour elements to a close and leaves without haste or bother.

Altogether, I’d say this is more elegant than any other Montanya offering, while not being as original. It cares enough to be an easier drink and edges into the wall rather than just ramming into it facefirst, so to speak. The sweet and slightly off notes, the sour and brininess, all mesh quite well. Even at 50% if feels softer and more palatable than many others with similar stats, and as a mixer or as a sipper, it works equally well. 

Most of the time I have little patience for the way so many American rums either head straight for the cheap seats so as to max sales, or the boring  middle ground in an effort never to offend even a single potential buyer. The best American rums resolutely go their own way and what we have here is one of those: an interesting, almost noble, attempt to defy the stereotype, to make an original rum to exacting standards, that will nevertheless please. Not one that everyone will love, perhaps, but for sure one that many will respect. I’m one of those.

(#1079)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Other notes

  • A video recap can be found here.
  • Production details updated a few days after posting to take into account Megan Campbell’s helpful follow up email
  • The rum predates the December 2023 takeover and was made around 2022
  • My deepest thanks to the boys at Skylark in the UK, who allowed me to hang around their crib and steal their rums, including this one.
  • More complete company notes can be found in the Platino review
  • Under new ownership, they will be releasing a pineapple habanero rum later this summer (2024); also issuing various cocktail bitters, as well as experimenting with different barrels for aging (e.g. grape brandy barrels).


Jun 212024

Those with pachyderm memories will recall that the 2021 Australian advent calendar also had a rum from Yack distillery, also called “Tavern Style”, but a much earlier batch, the No. 5; and even though the website only goes up to Batch #008, this one is assuredly newer.

I’ll place a recap of the distillery background below this review so you can read faster, and for once I’ll keep things short.  Basically, there are very few aspects of this rum that are different from batch to batch – the reason there are such releases at all is because of the relatively small still capacity, which limits outturns, most of which is sold locally and within the region.

Yack Distillery uses a 1200 litre copper and glass tower still with stainless columns and a 130 litre stainless and copper modular high column still, and these two stills permit the wide flexibility to make a raft of different spirits (gins, vodka, whisky, rum, they play all the hits). With respect to this rum, they use Grade A molasses and a yeast from the Caribbean with a fermentation of 7-8 days. Once it’s run through the still, it gets tucked into an ex-bourbon barrel for four years and a Meyrieux Bourgogne Cask for another year – one wonders whether that qualifies as “double matured” or “finished” but never mind (they just call it “double cask” on the label).

Photo (c) Yack Creek Distillery

In the review of Batch #5 I remarked on its “uncommonly pleasant nose”. Here, “unusual” might be a better term: it opens as dirty, loamy, earthy – redolent of compost, rotting wet autumn leaves, and fruits going off. There’s some odd honey and peat, seaweed and brine, and a weak medicinal iodine note swirling around in the background, combined with overripe orange peel notes, pineapple and peaches. I dunno, but I’m sniffing a weak TECA here, it seems like. 

Still, the taste isn’t bad at all. It’s firm and warm, not scratchy, with lighter fruit coming to the fore almost immediately: papaya, ripe Indian mangoes, brown sugar, bananas, salted caramel, a crisp and spicy guacamole primed with some Thai chilis (that’s what I tasted, honest). And the finish was no slouch, medium long, a little spicy but also muskily sweet and always that hint of chili coming out to take a last bite

Well. I had to smile. This was such a jolly little number. It gambolled and frisked and jumped all over the place with all those weird notes, yet somehow it kind of came together pretty well in the end…once it got tired and chilled out. After about half an hour (I kept the glass going out of sheer curiosity) it really settled down and started to play it safe and became less energetic, and lost something of its exceptionalism. Whether that’s good or bad for you depends on your preferences, I guess.

My advice is  to know your tastes and how you like your neat pour: if you’re an adventurous sort of bloke, don’t waste time waiting for it to open up and come to you, but take it as it comes. You’ll be intrigued, and maybe even surprised – pleasantly so, I hope. And if you’re the conservative, take-it-easy country solicitor type, well, wait a while — you’ll be pleasantly surprised too.

(#1078)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Company Background (from R-0921)

The distillery is located in the eastern state of Victoria, and was founded in 2016 by two friends, Mick and Jamie, conforming to the pattern of many others: the guys were checking out whale sharks in Ningaloo (Western Australia) six years earlier, the conversation turned to spirits and opening a business, and in short order they had made plans. 

Then they spent years securing the financing, buying and installing the necessary equipment and started their business. They called it Yack after the river and town in which they set up shop, and quite sensibly shortened its name, because calling it Yackandandah might have been a labelling problem and a tongue twister for lexically challenged. Unsurprisingly they have made gin and vodka to pay the immediate bills, before heading into whisky territory (where they are already up to the 27th edition as of 2024) and the 12th iteration of their rum line.

Other notes

  • From the 2023 advent calendar Day 11
  • I’m not actually sure what a “tavern style” rum is…but I hope to find out one day.
  • The logo on the company masthead is that of a Blue Murray Spiny Crayfish, commonly found in the creek and was designed by Jamie Heritage and his sister.
  • Yack Creek Distillery is one of a cluster of small family-run distilleries established over the last decade in and around Yackandandah and its surrounds. Backwoods Distilling is close by, and in the area are Barking Owl, Bilson’s, Glenbosch, joining the 10 or so distilleries in Victoria’s High Country.
Jun 172024

The question most have when seeing this bottle for the first time, is, not unnaturally, who the hell is Watson? Is it the owner?  An old and crusty master blender, a black sheep member of the family? Some anonymous angel investor from way back? Naah, it’s none of the above – with a cheeky sense of humour that would do the new Australian micros proud, the answer is…the distillery cat; and they named their rarest experimental casks for him.

This might make the distillery seem somewhat of a lark and not all that serious, but take my word for it – it is. Kit Carruthers founded the establishment in 2018 on a converted cattle byre on  the family estate in SW Scotland, just around the time the ink was drying on his PhD, and began distilling in 2019, doing all of the initial work on his own. By 2022 things were going well enough to hire a second employee (or third, if you count Watson – it’s not clear what his legal status in the distillery is; he may just be a feline Baldrick for all we know).

What characterises the distillery and Kit’s work there is not only the minimal environmental footprint, but the quickly expanding range.  There’s a white rum in the lineup, several aged expressions, special editions (of course), a spiced rum and always something a bit out there for the aficionados, or a favoured charity. The “Watson’s Reserve Edition #1” which had its debut in the 2023 TWE Rum Show is a post still product laid to rest in September 2019 in an American oak barrel, then recasked in June 2021 in a 65L Ex-oloroso and ex-Speyside whisky octave before being bottled in November 2022 at 59%…by which time the outturn was a relatively small 30 bottles.

Even if a year after the fact it’s become borderline unavailable, it’s still worth checking out if you can find it. For a youngish rum it sure presses some interesting buttons: for example, the nose is quite pleasant for that strength, richly sweet and borderline thick. It’s initially chewy and meaty to smell, though this fades rather quickly leaving mostly grapes, vanilla, apples and some faintly sour notes of kimchi and a wine that’s on the edge of going off, balanced by some toffee and salted caramel ice cream.

The taste builds (some might say improves) on that, and elevates the experience a bit. It’s crisp and a little sharp, very clean. Mostly it presents butterscotch and caramel, toffee, some weak tannins and vanilla, raisins and prunes. One can’t expect too much complexity for a three year old rum, yet what we have here isn’t half bad, and the finish is vibrant, fresh and quite dry, with more of those faintly bitter woody notes leavened with toffee and vanilla – one wonders what this will be like in a further five years, to be honest.

British rum until recently was relegated to supermarket blends, neutral alcohol dumbed down to living room strength, Bacardi lookalikes or rebottled rum from foreign climes, often the Caribbean. But in the last decade, a bunch of New Brit distilleries have popped up over the last decade – the Islay Rum Company, Outlier, Retribution, J. Gow,  Sugar House and others, have all redefined British rum making in this period (in my opinion at least), with small-batch cask-strength releases, fascinating unaged whites, innovative approaches and a desire to see what some tinkering and an attitude can do. 

Ninefold is one of these and they’re just as eager to show they can make some interesting juice, with or without Watson lending a helping paw.  Based on this rum and others I’ve tried, they have a good chance of doing just that. 

(#1077)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Other notes

Jun 102024

Now here we’re approaching a distillery that moves away somewhat from the east coast of Australia where so many other rum making outfits  are found, and situates itself firmly on the southern island of Tasmania (about which I could tell you plenty historical stuff, but may risk putting you to sleep and so shall desist).

In brief, this distillery, located in New Norfolk (get it?) in the Derwent Valley in southern Tasmania, just NW of Hobart, the capital, is on premises that once housed a hospital and asylum complex. It was established in 2019 by Tarrant Derkson, who decided to make a distillery that focused on rum, after realising there weren’t any such animals around, for reasons rooted in the same history I’ll just touch on here.

Now, from 1839 until 1992, spirit production — primarily whisky, for which there had once been sixteen distilleries — was prohibited in Tasmania, but the ban was eventually repealed. These days there are a few companies making rums, yet, similar to Australia, one gets the impression that in the main they move around gins and whiskies and rum is a sideline. Island Coast, Blackman’s Bay, Deviant Distillery, Knocklofty, Bridport Distilling  are examples, making rum as a reflex nod to rounding out the portfolio rather than a prime focus (I make no judgement on this, it’s just economics and wherewithal, that’s all)

New Norfolk has no time for any of newfangled notions like portfolio diversity and resolutely makes rums, pretty much only rums, and amuse themselves by often using some very intriguing names for them. They currently produce various liqueurs, spiced rums and straightforward rums…but it is the 60% Drone Riot Wild Cane Spirit and the Diablo Robotico 66.6% pure single cask rum which really interest me, quite aside from this one, which is called Dormant Star for reasons that are probably related to it being dormant until released by cracking the bottle and quaffing it (something similar to the way Velier called one line of its rums “Liberation” and gave it the year of bottling not the year of laying it down to age.

Photo (c) New Norfolk Distillery

The website production details are spartan at best but from photos and additional notes of the advent calendar we can infer the following: molasses based with some cane sugar for the ferments, which takes 7-14 days and results in a 12-14% wash which gets run through “Riley” their tame copper pot still, after which it is set to age in American oak for 2+ years.  Now, according to Mrs and Mrs Rum, there is some minor dosage, but I didn’t get a chance to check it and anyway like I said, I tend to reserve judgement on this until I actually try the final product.

The nose is quite interesting: it opens with an initial aroma of dusty drywall, paint, varnish, rubber tyres and new leather upholstery of a car that sat too long in the sun (so maybe there’s an unsupervised house repairman running around the distillery?). This is balanced off by chocolates, nuts, vanilla, cardboard, rye bread, light fruits (papaya, pears, light green grapes, which is pleasant), and treacle over hot fresh pancakes, so there’s quite a bit to parse here.

The taste is a little less complicated. At 47.5% it’s firm and assertive, not particularly sharp, quite soft, a little sweet, and initial flavours are of honey plus fruits – bananas, pears, grapes, and guavas (the white ones), with some green apples providing that slight tart bite to cut the experience. There are also some light caramel and breakfast spices, vanilla and cinnamon, but one has to strain to pick those out and it’s hardly worth trying, as the finish does provide a summary of that as well, and overall it finishes quietly

This is a really nice, easygoing hot weather rum, the sort that’s quite sippable. If I had an issue with it at all it’s that it is too tame, not particularly complex and could showcase a bit more. It’s pleasant without attempting any exceptionalism, and what it succeeds at is not pissing anyone off – there is absolutely nothing wrong with it that a person who likes easier Spanish style rums would find fault with. For those who want something more brawny and uncompromising, this isn’t for you: for everyone else, it’s fine. 

(#1076)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Other notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar Day 16
  • More details may be added later about the distillery background and production process, as I have some outstanding queries to them.
  • I was told there was some light dosage here but have not confirmed this
  • The five minute video recap is here.
Jun 052024

Even though it has been knocking around Europe for at least a decade, Héritiers Madkaud is not a name that will be instantly familiar to many rum aficionados…it’s probably best known to the French. They have occasionally been spotted on the festival circuit (and won a few awards), and remain easier to find in online stores than in brick and mortar shops. The rhums they release are from Martinique, are AOC certified cane juice rhums, and the blanc I tried was definitely right up there, so it’s kind of a downer that more people aren’t familiar with it

A few words about the brand, then. The basic story is that in 1893, Félicien Madkaud — the son of a freed slave from Lorraine in the north of Martinique — married the mulatto heiress of a Bordeaux merchant. Her funds gave him the capital that enabled him to buy the Fond Capot distillery in 1895 – this was part of the Duvallon estate in Carbet, then the Bellevue distillery, located near by the west-coast commune of Case Pilote. In 1906 Félicien helped his brother Augustin to open a distillery at La Dupuis in Lorrain, then he opened another for himself in Macedonia in 1920; and in 1924 he set up his nephew Louisy with La Digue distillery, which maintained production of Héritiers Madkaud rums until the mid-1970s before shuttering (the others had been closing since 1969 and La Digue was the only one left). In the early 2010s, Stéphane Madkaud, Félicien’s great-grandson, revived the brand, with distillation contracted out to Saint James in Sainte-Marie, based on – you guessed it – old family recipes. 

Currently the stable of the house has six rhums, three of which are unaged blancs: a standard white at 40% first released in 2007, a 50% edition called the Castlemore that came out in 20121; and the 50% ABV “Renaissance”, which was a 2017 special edition to commemorate 160 years of the birth of Félicien Madkaud, and for which the label changed – though I’m not sure anything else did.

Be that as it may, it is clear that the Cuvée Renaissance is staking out some new territory, because the nose starts out with such originality (this is not an unmixed blessing) that I had to look carefully at the label again to make sure I really was having an agricole. This rhum exudes a meaty, gamey, stinky aroma that induces PTSD flashbacks to the Long Pond TECA, or the Seven Seas Japanese rum…except that by some subtle alchemy it succeeds (sort of) whereas those just cheerfully traumatise. There are accompanying smells of really spoiled fruits and grapes that are flaccid and gone seriously off and yet I found myself somewhat enjoying the sheer chutzpah of the amalgam – maybe that’s because after a bit one can sense some lemon rind, lighter fruits (pears, papayas) and florals which take the bite off, balance things better, and tame the beast…although without ever entirely allowing a complete escape from the slightly rancid opening notes.

Much of this repeats when tasted. Here the 50% takes over and gives a fierceness to the profile that points up the youth and untamed nature of the rhum. Once again it starts with meat, rotting fruit and a sort of earthy taste that reminds me of an abandoned house with waterlogged drywall, an unwashed wet dog (!!) and even (get this), quinine. To its credit there are other late developing flavours that rescue it from disaster – citrus, fanta, tonic water, more light fruits and hot sweet pastries – and the finish is surprisingly well handled with musky fruity notes cut with sharper citrus and sauerkraut.

This is, admittedly, one of those rhums that will polarise opinion and even I have to concede that it does take some getting used to, and while I dislike using terms like “acquired taste,” it’s absolutely not a rhum I would recommend to neophytes. It’s a hard act to pin down because there so much weird sh*t going on at all times and after trying it four times over two days, my tasting notes are peppered with words like” amazed”, “impressed”, “fear-inducing”, “zoweee!”, “crazy” and “wtf?” You get the picture.

And yet, and yet…for all that, I believe the rhum is peculiarly excellent (I chose the term carefully), and resolutely walks its own path, with tastes that within their limits, work. If the test of any rhum you’ve not tried before is how it makes you remember it after just a single session, then something exciting the thoughts this one does is hardly a failure. That kind of originality is a rarity in this day and age of milquetoast conformity, and I agree that it’s not a rum that’s easy to love…but by God, it sure is one to respect.

(#1075)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Other notes

May 312024

Although it’s slowly changing, it’s still a good bet that if the average rum drinker were asked to name any Australian rums and the companies that made them, the two most common responses would be Bundaberg and Beenleigh. And whether or not one was a native of Australia, the general consensus would also be that the Bundie (located some distance north of Brisbane in Queensland) is foul hooch for the masses while Beenleigh (just south of Brisbane) aspires to something more highbrow and makes somewhat better regarded rums.  Both export a lot and are known around the world, with Beenleigh having an edge in the indie bottling scene where several different expressions have come out in the last few years, as issued by various bottlers like Cadenhead, TBRC and others.

These simple statements are, however, somewhat at odds with the reality on the ground. For sure the downmarket Bundies don’t have a good reputation and often get savagely skewered (including by me), but starter-kit Beenleighs sold locally aren’t exactly hot-snot bees-knees either. Both have — in the last decade or so — diversified their rum portfolios to cater to all price points and issue rums of various ages and strengths, as well as special editions and anniversary releases and just simple experiments that some happy distiller decided to mess with one day and see what happened (if it didn’t detonate in his face first). And these are, in many cases, not half bad, no matter which outfit releases them

Take this one for example, which is one of the best rum from Beenleigh I’ve ever tried. It’s a ten year old rum, molasses from Queensland, and pot distilled according to the company website but both the label and the advent calendar notes say pot-column blend and so confirmed by Steve Magarry, so there you have it. The “rare” portion of the title comes from its limited edition status – it came from a blend of only four barrels – and the barrels themselves, which were ex-Australian-brandy, and ex-bourbon American oak. The exact outturn is not stated but I would hazard that it’s around a thousand bottles.

For a 46% ABV rum it noses really well, combining both sweet and sour in an amalgam that presents the best of lychees, ginnips, gooseberries and ice wine. There are also apricots peaches and some very ripe dark cherries, buffeting the nose in solid pungent aromatic waves, accompanied – as the rum opens up later – by honey, freshly buttered hot croissants, and some dusty cardboard that is far from unpleasant. This is seriously one fine nose.

The taste is great stuff. A lot of what one senses when smelling it comes back for an encore here: the sweet solidity of honey, lychees, pineapple slices, cashews, ripe apples and pears, combined with subtler tastes of watermelon and papaya. Into this is mixed cinnamon, vanilla and caramel, some olive oil (!!) and a last flirt of ripe red grapes and cardamom helps make the finish an easy and memorable one.

The achievement of being able to represent so many flavors considerable when one considers the 46%, and I wonder whether it was the same 2013 batch of juice that La Maison & Velier released last year. It is soft yet firm, tasty without being threatening, and its only drawback may be the price (AUS$160 / about US$110) which is somewhat high for a ten year old…but maybe not, given the hoops we’d have to jump through to get any.

I have not tasted a whole lot of Bundabergs recently, yet looking at their portfolio these days, I’m not seeing a whole lot they’re making that can catch up with this one. Be that as it may let’s just give Beenleigh the plaudits they deserve here. I think the rum is great, really well assembled, tastes wonderful and isn’t bottled at some stratospheric proof that leaves you gasping, or with so few bottles you’ll never see any. It’s something to drink sparingly and with great enjoyment, if one turns up on your doorstep.

(#1074)(87/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Other notes

  • From the 2023 advent calendar Day 18
May 262024

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the cheap mass produced uninteresting blah of the regular run of filtered standard strength white rums made and sold in Canada. They are mostly tasteless, cheerless, charmless and graceless, and their only purpose is to get you – as economically as possible – as high as a giraffe’s butt. Perhaps we should be grateful that they do this one thing so well. 

If you wonder at my snark, it’s because I know that it’s possible to make an economical white rum that is much better and has real flavour, a real character, and doesn’t require the whinging about Canada’s archaic rules on what can be called rum (minimum one year ageing is a much-derided requirement for any rum in the country). Just look at all the interesting rums being made in the UK by small distillers like Sugar House, J. Gow, Islay Rum Distillery, Ninefold, Retribution, Outlier and others. Or the New Wave of Australian distillers like Cabarita, JimmyRum, Tin Shed, Hoochery, Boatrocker, Killik et al. They have their issues as well but you don’t see them holding back do you? F**k no, they’re running full speed into the damned wall is what they’re doing.

Into this dronish mess of undifferentiated alcoholic rose water that constitutes the Great White North’s white rum landscape, comes a small New Brunswick outfit (founded as a hobby distilling project in 2016 and established a fucntional distillery three yeasrs later) called Carroll’s. It has a labelling aesthetic that is really quite lovely, and a single rum off to the side that channels the most atavistic, cheerfully fiendish impulses of the owner, Matthieu Carroll. With that rum, somewhat at variance with the others he makes, he leveraged a pot still shoehorned into his family’s bakery, did a nine day closed fermentation and brewed this popskull to amp up the ester count to 567 g/hlpa, and knock the pants off unsuspecting reviewers, most of whom don’t know what the hell to make of this thing.

Think I exaggerate?  Permit me to illustrate: it’s 65.1% and packs a hell of a one-two nasal wallop – both for strength and for the congeners, which have no hesitation making themselves felt. There’s candy.  Lots of  sweet sugared sour candy, sour kimchi, candy floss, icing sugar on a cake and so on. There’s aromas of strawberries, pineapples, chewing gum and citrus juice from a bottle. That’s the nice part, and indeed, it’s sweet — a bit delicate even; but the countervailing muskier and deeper undernotes are missing and this throws the balance off somewhat, as does the mouth puckering sour.

There are reservations on the nose, then, though it’s decent enough, but the initial the palate is where it comes into its own. Strawberries and wet hay, anise, some very tart pineapple notes, and again the candy – though some of the tasting crew opined it is really too much now. They may have a point. The real aspect of the taste that may discombobulate, is that an increasingly dominant thread of red licorice comes stealing out of the night. Once this thing gets going, it’s red licorice all the way and it overwhelms everything else and again, there’s no balance. A bit more restraint on this, perhaps some more darker, heavier notes and it would have rated higher, I think, and a rather disappointingly short finish demonstrates a blurt and a blast of quick intense sweet-sour flavour with a rapid drop off.

So where does this leave us? Tasted solo it might be more of a success.  Tasted with several other high ester Jamaicans in the vicinity, its lack of multi-dimensionality is more pronounced, and the crew of Rum Revelations’ 2023 face off were far more unsympathetic about it in s daiquiri (they gave it more slack on the neat pour). Yet for all that, it’s a good dram, tasty enough. Like Romero’s Cask strength rum, this one elevates the potential of Canada’s distillers and shows they can muscle into territory held by better known and more successful exporters from the islands or others from elsewhere who are dabbling in the Jamaican high ester style. Rated against them it’s not as good, now – yet Carroll’s remains on my radar as a distillery to watch because almost alone among all the local distilleries, they dare to fail in style, and that’s something deserving of more respect than others have given so far.

Because, the rum may be colourless and have its faults, but let me tell you, in spiritous tasting terms, compared to the milquetoast stuff we see from its competitors, the damn thing glows like a neon tarantula on a wedding cake. And after you take it out and kill it, you shudder at the way it made your skin crawl and your palate pucker and your tongue shrivel up and cry…yet an hour later you’ll still be saying, with equal parts disbelief and admiration, “Bai, dat ting got some really braddar badassery, nuh?” Neil C. one of the Tasting Squad in the joint the day this thing was trotted out, grudging said “It smells like sweet sh*t but damn it tastes phenomenal.” 

That’s Carroll’s for you. I really can’t put it any better than that.

(#1073)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐

Other notes

  • The RHE mark refers to “red high ester”
  • Outturn unknown
  • Although under Canadian regulations this cannot be called a rum since it is not aged, to call it “High Ester Content” as per the label strikes me as confusing and does not represent what it truly is, so I’m calling it a rum.
  • Tried against several other high ester rums, mostly from Jamaica.
  • Six minute video synopsis is here.
May 212024

It would be easy to think that the Karu Distillery in New South Wales has some connection to South Africa’s karoo, given the gin with the cheetah on the label which the founding Australian couple – Nick and Ally Ayres – have added to their lineup.  You’d be wrong – in point of fact the word karu is of Estonian origin, like Ally Ayres herself, and means “bear,” and was a concept they wanted to embody (it also means “Eye” in Maori).

The distillery is of relatively recent vintage, having been established in 2017: and while in parts of SE Asia it’s almost a cliche that micro distilleries are established by itinerant Frenchmen with a love of wine or cognac, well, in the antipodes one could argue that the equivalent is the husband and wife team, of which he have met several in our sojourns around Australian distilleries.

Nick Ayres (who was in the movie business — he was a grip/ camera rigger/ crane operator, among other hats) and his wife Ally (who hailed from a company accounting background) initially intended to open a bar, but by 2014 they knew that they were more interested in distillation. They spent the next three years puttering around gathering experience and putting together funds and equipment: in 2017 the opened up the Karu distillery and issued their popular Affinity Gin a year later, followed quickly by the full proof Lightning, after which, in 2019 — following a masterclass held by none other than Richard Seale, because of course, it had to be him — they turned their attentions to rum. Needless to say, there were a lot of messy experiments in the skunkworks Ally ran, before the kinks started to be ironed out: this rum is the result.

Using the same Australian-made 600L pot still they call “Calcifer” (which we can only hope is named after Miyazaki’s film) as they do for the gins, but without the reflux (fermentation is two weeks in summer four weeks in winter, using a Caribbean yeast in ex olive and pickle barrels), they set their first rum to age in 2021, in ex-Australian-whisky barrels fragrantly (and with puns fully intended) named Bungholio, Barilyn Monroe, Master Splinter, Barole Caskin, Stavid Attenborough…and, well, you get the point (somebody over there is just full of vim, vinegar and enough sass to stun an elephant, that’s clear – and I want to meet whoever that is). Anyway, what came out in 2023 was the first batch, this one, and they moved so fast that by the end of that year they were already up to Batch #3.

New labelling

Original label. Photo courtesy of Mr. & Mrs. Rum

So there’s the intro, and what we get when all is said and done and distilled and put to sleep with the barrel, is a lightly aged 46% ABV rum that presses some interesting buttons. Take the nose, for example: it’s crisp, medium light, sweet, clean and clear, like the pure water chuckling over the rocks in an outback creek, or a really dry white wine…chardonnay perhaps. Light green grapes, just on this side of sweet, a touch of lemon peel, caramel and chocolate oranges.  A dash of coffee grounds, with some vanilla and fruit going off in the background.

The palate is really no slouch either, and sports a good mouthfeel that encourages one to sip it – not always the case for a rum this young. It tastes of honey and a light tequila, mead, with that light salty-sweet cashew note that so distinguishes that drink. Ripe juicy fruits just bursting out of their skins – mangoes, cashes, cherries, with a dusting of nutmeg and cinnamon, vanilla beans and some strawberry marmalade and custard.  Quite nice. Finish is short and crisp and ends things with the clear snap of a breaking glass rod, without adding anything to the party we have not sensed before.

With all that assailing the nose and the tongue and wafting back up on the fading close, it suggests not only an undiscovered steal but a veritable diamond in the rough, a sort of “where was this all my life?” vibe.  Yeah…but no. Not quite. The youth of the rum is still evident in a slight rough sharpness to the way it initially assails, however well it smoothens out afterwards. The aromas and tastes are there, yet don’t flow smoothly, don’t do the tango together in harmony – stuff gets getting mixed up and the steps falter and it doesn’t all come together in a cohesive whole.  On those levels it stumbles and this makes the entire experience less.

Don’t get me wrong, for a first effort — no other rums seem to have ever been made before this one — it’s an impressive release. The swath of prizes it won are a testament to how much judges vibrated to its frequency. Speaking for myself, however, I think it could still do with some tweaking, some strengthening, some more development: and maybe the best is yet to come in one of the subsequent releases, which, hopefully, we will be fortunate to enjoy as well.

(#1072)(83/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Other notes

  • From the 2023 advent calendar Day 12
  • Outturn unknown
  • In six years of operation, the company has been awarded some 100 medals including a Platinum Medal at the Las Vegas Global Spirits Awards 2023 and a High Silver 93 Points in IWSC 2023, as well as an innovation award
May 142024

Although of late I have been unable to source many rums from Japan, one company’s juice does make it over to Calgary, and that’s the Helios Distillery’s “Teeda” brand. So far neither the 5YO nor the white are to be found here (though both have been reviewed in these pages based on their coming out party in Paris a few years ago); however, we have seen the amazing 21 YO, and the rather deceptive, blended “standard strength” rum which we are looking at today.

For the benefit of those who want to know more about Helios, it is arguably the oldest rum making distillery in Japan, having been operational since 1961. Then, it was called Taiyou, and made cheap rum blends from sugar cane, both to sell to the occupying American forces, and to save rice for food and sake production. In the decades since, they’ve branched out — and aside from beers and awamori, for which they are better known in Japan, rums continue to make up a good portion of the portfolio.

The dark-yellow coloured blended rum (it’s just called “Teeda Japanese Rum” on the label) is an interesting piece of work. For one, it doesn’t present as any kind of special, and has no fancy advertising flourishes to hit you over the head with its awesomeness. It’s 40% ABV and doesn’t even bother to tell you how old it is. In the west that would be called indifference: in Japan it’s a marketing strategy. Because the rum is actually an agricole-style rum, made from cane juice. It’s made on a pot still.  It’s aged a minimum of three years in American oak. These are not the sort of stats to excite yawns these days.

Nor should they, because the rum is quietly excellent (and this comes from a guy who’s tried the whole range and liked quite a few). Just look at how it opens when you smell it.  You get tart fleshy fruits — apricots, ripe mangoes, ginnips and soursop — mixing it up with the sourness of a seriously tasty ashlyan-foo, ripe red grapes, and a touch of rotting oranges. Oh and there’s bananas, lychees, and even (get this!) some freshly peeled potatoes and dark rye bread. One may not recognize all the scents that come wafting out of the glass, but there’s no denying there’s quite a bit of originality here.

And it also develops well on the palate. It does this by never straying too far from what we might call a “rummy” profile. It’s slightly sweet and the ex-bourbon barrels in which it was aged provide the requisite backbone of vanilla, leather, and light molasses and tannins. Here the sour notes from the nose have been dialled down, to be replaced with a mildly funky note, some tart fruits (strawberries, orange peel), honey and a nice mild cane sap of the sort you get when you split a stalk of sugar cane with your teeth (and I should know). The finish isn’t all that long lasting or intense, just flavourful and pleasant and channels most of what has been described above – it’s the most forgettable part of the rum

Overall, I think this is one of the most original and interesting young rums I’ve tried in a long while, excluding the unaged white brawlers with which I wrestle quite often. It shows the benefits of a fermentation- and still-based approach to rum making, as opposed to the Spanish style of light-off-the-column-still, barrel-influenced rons. Those are good for what they are and of course have their adherents (especially in their countries of origin) – I just don’t find them quite as interesting, as representative of their lands.

The fact that the Teeda Blended Rum presents so well even with so few years of ageing, builds a head of steam to finish in such style, suggests there is a sweet spot where the rambunctiousness of youth intersects perfectly with a little of the wisdom of age. Neither aspect is completely eliminated here, and with this rum, I would suggest that Helios found a nice middle in which to showcase both. What a lovely, unassuming and understated  rum it is indeed.

(#1071)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Other Notes

  • Accompanying 5-Minute Video Review
  • Both this rum and the 21 YO remain available in Canada. For some reason the White and the 5YO never got imported.
  • The colouring of the rum and the printed-on bottle make the label very hard to take pictures of. The back blurb is just marketing stuff and does not say anything useful about the rum itself. The front is pretty minimal.
May 072024

We met this distillery before, last time we had an advent calendar: back then they were presenting Batch #3 of their double barrel rum, and now here we have the next iteration, the Batch #4.

You can read a more extended company bio below this review, so let’s skip right to the rum itself, for which the production process is the same as before. A primary ferment uses a yeast originally from Jamaica; a dunder/muck pit (also not mentioned on the site) provides cultured bacteria, and wild yeast is from the local area, all which is continually evolving as they add fresh dunder at the end of each rum run to boost the ester count. How long the fermentation goes on for is unknown, but once this process is complete, the rum distillation is done using the their 450 litre hybrid pot still (with two ten-plate columns) and engaging just the first column and five plates – the juice comes off the still at around 58% ABV, and set to age for about two years in first-use bourbon barrels imported from the USA, with a further year in high-char (#3) American oak barrels. Bottling is done after dilution to 45% ABV, and there you have it. New rum. Made just like the old rum.

Let’s start with the nose. Some of the same richness of aroma attended the first sniff, though here, instead of leading with the wine profile, what I got was more of a spice forward smell: vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, a trace of nutmeg. It was also slightly more woody, had some sawdust notes, and gradually showed off warm pastries dusted with icing sugar fresh out of the oven. Cherries in sweet syrup, black grapes, raisins, bitter chocolate, and even a touch of ice cream, finished things off, so on that score, it compared well with B#3..except for one thing: somehow, it was not as richly pungent, or as intense as I recalled.

The taste there is something of the same issue I had had before: it was thinner and, in fact, here it almost seemed snide, a trifle bitchy.  There were fruits, vanilla, chocolate oranges, some crushed almonds, molasses and touch of citrus. But it was all something of a disorganised mishmash – the nose really had more elegance than what the palate was demonstrating. After trying it a few times I noticed cashews, honey and bitter chocolate (again), and the spiced pungency of a German glühwein on a particularly cold winter day in the Weihnachtsmarkt. And lastly, something that would make Mrs. Caner swoon if she sensed it, the aromatic hint of a brand new soft leather purse (the expensive kind). The finish was short and none too demonstrative, being content to repeat these notes – rather fewer of them, in fact – and letting the whole thing expire without fuss or memory.

(c) Boatrocker Distillery, picture from their website

Surprisingly, I was less impressed this go-around than I had been with the previous iteration, although since my other sample remains in Germany I could not compare them directly (but I have extensive files, so…). Very much like before, I enjoyed the nose the most, with a gradually decreasing appreciation for the stages after that. Part of it is simply the integration, the way the components all came together…or didn’t. It seemed there were a lot of interesting pieces on display – fruits, woody tannins, spices, sweet, a touch of sour – but somehow they had a failure to communicate. With Batch #3 I suggested it was something of a work in progress with room for improvement to realise its potential.  The jury remains out on that, especially with respect to this one.

(#1070)(80/100) ⭐⭐⭐

Company notes (from Review #905)

The distillery and brewery called Boatrocker (with what I am sure is representative of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour shared by many Aussies) is another small family-run outfit located in Melbourne, a mere 50km or so north of JimmyRum. It was officially founded in 2009, and like many other such small enterprises I’ve written about, their genesis is far older: in this case, in the 1980s, when the (then teenaged) founder, Matt Houghton, was enthused by the Michael Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson) show “The Beer Hunter” – this led to a lifelong love of beer, homebrewing, studies of the subject in University, and even gypsy brewing after graduation, which he and his wife Andrea did while saving pennies for a “real” brewery.  In 2012 they acquired property, plant and equipment (as the bean counters like to say), and established their first barrel room and cellar door, all to do with beer.

They soon gained an enthusiastic following and a good reputation for their beers, but where’s the rum, you ask. Well, that’s where things get a little murky and several sources have to be consulted over and above the company webpage. In short, in 2017 Boatrocker merged with a Western Australian gin-and-vodka distillery called Hippocampus — the investing owner of that distillery had taken a 33% share in Boatrocker in 2015 — uprooted that company’s hybrid still “Kylie” and moved lock stock and barrels to Melbourne.  This is what is making all the distilled spirits in Boatrocker now, though I get the impression that a separate team is involved. They produce gin (several varieties, of course), whiskey, vodka and two rums (one is spiced).  Oddly, there’s no unaged white in the portfolio, but perhaps they made enough money off of existing spirits, so that the need to have a white cane spirit was not seen to be as important. On the other hand, rum may not seem to be the main attraction of the company so perhaps that explains it.

Other notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 3
May 032024

Sooner or later, even those rums that many regard as no more than the mangy spirituous curs, the spavined, rice-eating, lice-ridden mongrels of the rum world, need to be acknowledged. We all know who makes them, and who they are. To those who dislike them, they yap at the doorsteps of the rumhouse with an incessant sort of insistence day in and day out, and are dissed and dismissed with sneers and contempt at every turn. And yet there are those who swear by them with truculent blue collar appreciation as well: such rums have always existed, and have always invited disputation. They are part of the Great Rum Tree, and must be acknowledged at some point, if only to demonstrate what they are and why they elicit such strong reactions.

Bumbu, in spite of the suggestive narrative on their website, is not a distillery, it’s a brand owned by Sovereign Spirits which also owns similarly hyped and marketed sparkling wines, gins, liqueurs and three Bumbu products, two of which pass for rums with only the greatest of generosity. They are all aimed squarely at the cocktail crowd and show off slick press, cool looking bottles, celebrity endorsements, and make absolutely no imprint on the minds of those who actually know their drinks. And who is Sovereign? A family owned spirits company from NY founded in 1999 by ex-merchant banker and entrepreneur Brett Berish, with a wide marketing footprint around the world.

To understand exactly what excites the reactions to the brand that it does, one has to go back to the Original (which I’ve tried but never written about). This was a rum that emerged around 2017 or so and was supposedly made from a Barbados distillery in existence “since 1893”, which is to say, WIRD. Serge of WhiskyFun, in a savagely eviscerating review that awarded a contemptuous 15 points to this 35% “rum” (it is now marketed as being spiced, though it was not at the time) remarked that it was blended with other countries’ rums but I’ve seen no other corroboration of this claim. At 35% ABV and testing out at 40g/L of added sugar and tarnished by all the subsequent bad press WIRD’s owners got, and its undisclosed additives, it was no surprise that connoisseurs avoided it like the plague. Yet so popular did the rum prove – let’s face it, easy and non-complex and tarted-up spirits are catnip to those who just want to get hammered on something that tastes ok – that a mere couple of years later, the XO came on the scene.

The XO boasted the same slick marketing. Originating from Panama this time, words like “premium” “craft” “by hand” “artisanal” “120 year old distillery” and “18 years” were tossed around, the presentation was first rate and was competitively priced. No mention has ever been made about a solera style system (which is suspected by many since 18 YO rums do not usually got for €40), but parsing the language finds the usual weasel words of “up to 18 years old” on some websites, which nails it as a blend about which we therefore know nothing — especially the proportions — except that it comes from Don Jose distillery, is columnar still and made from molasses in the Latin/Spanish style. Aged in ex-bourbon and finished in sherry barrels. Being issued at 40% is, I guess, a step up for the producers, who trumpeted it as “full strength.” Right, But in an interesting turnaround, my hydrometer clocks this at 38.25% ABV…or 8g/L of something added, which is not a whole lot – it may be that they’ve been revamping the blend somewhat of later, who knows?

So, with all this introduction out of the way: does it work or not, and is it a “boring” piece of blah, as Wes Burgin remarked in his own 1½ star 2019 review?

Yes and no. It’s way better than the oversweet mess that was the banana confected coconut-tasting Original I recall from a traumatic tasting a few years ago. It’s crisper on the nose, with elements of banana, damp tobacco, ginger, molasses, brown sugar, coffee, vanilla and caramel.  All the usual hits are playing, in other words. The additives are there, while fortunately having a less than overwhelming impact in how it smells. 

It’s on the palate that it fails, I think. Here there’s much less to enjoy. Tannins, coffee grounds, caramel and vanilla, some molasses and sweet cherries…even the faintest hint of astringency. It’ll bite at the tongue somewhat, sure: what starts to happen as it opens up, however, is that the sugar (or whatever else they added in to smoothen things out) begins to flatten out the peaks and troughs of what could have been a much more interesting rum if left to develop on its own without it. It just starts to feel vaguely one dimensional after a few minutes and adding in “a single ice cube” as the web entry suggests is ludicrously self defeating — it closes up the drink so you get even less than before. The finish is almost nonexistent, whispering of ginger, coffee, tannins and tumeric, but honestly, it’s slim picking by this point.

Summing up, there’s some bite here, quite welcome and as the notes above demonstrate, you can sink your teeth into it and enjoy it…up to a point. I’m not sure making it stronger would help, frankly, there’s simply too little to work with.  Moreover, as with many such rums made in this way, there’s no sense of originality or something that would make you sit up and take notice. It could come from anywhere, be made by anyone, and exists to sell not to enjoy.

So: no real information on bottle or website; no age statement that can be trusted; flashy pizzazz and marketing; a profile that’s indifferent; standard strength; not a whole lot to be tasting. It’s the sort of entry-level rum that’s made to move by the cartload, and evidently it does. For those who actually know their rums or care that they are well made, it’s a product that is content to be boring, I guess, and one they would be happy to pass by for that reason.  Rightfully so in my view, because there’s too little here to make even that low price seriously attractive.

(#1069)(76/100) ⭐⭐⭐

Apr 232024

That we get as many interesting rums out of Australia as we do is some kind of miracle. A lot of the current crop of micro-distilleries that have emerged in the last decade have to jump through ten different kind of hoops just to get off the ground, obtain the plant and pay their way while stuff is being made, and that almost presupposes that juice has to be made fast and quick.  Some manage to survive the lean early years, almost all diversify, and others try to put something unique on the table. 

A good example of all of this is the Wild River Mountain Distillery, located in the far north of Queensland in the Atherton Tablelands (rum distilleries Devil’s Thumb, Mt. Uncle and Bingil Bay are neighbours). Looking at their portfolio, there are 16 products being made: a vodka, a liqueur, 4 rums, 4 whiskies and 6 gins. Somebody is making sure all the bases are covered, and since there’s a fair amount of medals attending these, one can assume they’re not going out of business any time soon.

That said, the distillery, established in 2017 by the Wes Marks and his wife Amy, clearly is whisky-centric in its approach, and that’s where the enthusiasm lies: many years of experimentation (I like to think of it as taking place in a home-brewing and moonshine-type setup) to make a genuine Australian whisky and a Tennessee style hooch from local maize, predated the establishment of the formal operation. Brewing, yeast, fermentation, still-making and all sorts of other tinkering are part of this distillery’s DNA, and while rums are being made and the ever-present gins are there, it’s more like they are there for sustaining capital and cash flow than a passion in and of themselves.

Picture (c) Wild River Distillery

The rum under review today is a straightforward aged expression, and looking at the stats, it completely straightforward without any frippery: molasses-based using their signature yeast (duration not given), spring water, run through a pot still (size not known) and then set to age in ex-Bourbon barrels for about three years before being bottled at 46% — the strongest rum they currently make. 

The nose is generally workmanlike and doesn’t stray too far from what’s expected. There are traces of vanilla, very ripe, squishy oranges and citrus peel, honey drizzled over nearly burnt toast, the salt of ripe cashews, and some sweet, which is almost – but not quite – like the syrup in the jar after the cherries have been taken out. Plus a banana or two, maybe an unripe apricot for kick. This sounds like a fair bit, but when you have to take the better part of an hour to nail it down, maybe not so much.

The palate, in contrast, is much nicer, with a good mouthfeel that is solid and tawny and honey-like, offset by some tart fruits, unsweetened yoghurt, cinnamon and a touch of coffee grounds. It’s not precisely sweet, but the heaviness of the way it samples gives that impression, which is a good thing; and the finish, while short, does channel and sum up most of what has gone before quite well…without, however, making an emphatic statement for itself.

That last point is key. It’s a rum, it’s decently made, it’s tasty — but somehow finishes as a less than impressive dram. There’s little that’s new, original or exciting here, and reminds me of the straightforward (and sometimes indifferent) American rums I keep running into, where so-so efforts that do the job are made, yet which lack a sense of real passion and verve, the marks of distillers committed to this product line. Oh sure, it’ll liven up and  give the alcohol jolt to a cocktail, but at the end, this is the sort of rum you shrug at, and reflect that it channels about as much real character as parking lot with two cars in it.

(#1068)(75/100) ⭐⭐½

Other notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 8
  • Irrespective of this middling review, if you look at their instagram feed you’d see that they sure seem to have a lot of fun over there. I can think of worse places to work.
Apr 192024

To hear the social media commentary pouring out of the rumisphere last year, Eric Kaye pulled out some sort of magical rum rabbit from his jock and wowed the rum world with a magnificent one-of-a-kind, once-in-a-decade, 20-YO-rum from Foursquare.  And not just any rum, but a pot still rum, which, as any fan or Foursquare junkie knows, is rare as hen’s teeth (the distillery is world famous for its pot-column blends, not single still distillates). 

Holmes Cay is the brainchild and 2018 creation of the above-named Mr. Kaye (he was getting out of the music business at the time and looking around for other opportunities), and it’s at the forefront of a trend that hopefully gathers strength: indie bottling in the USA. Personally I’ve never understood why, given the higher startup and PP&E costs, American entrepreneurs go all out into launching distilleries, as opposed to taking advantage of more modest outlays to get an indie bottling operation off the ground. No sourcing materials, no experimentation, no technical expertise, just the selection of widely varying rums from around the world supplied by brokers who are happy to oblige and service a much less crowded market (although the insane permits, licences and bureaucracy remain the same).

Initially, to get things off the ground with a bang, Eric picked a couple of Foursquare barrels from 2005 (this was deliberate), and the speed at which they sold out in the US in 2019 assured him of the viability of the concept: he went all in, started sourcing more and began popping up on the festival circuit quite regularly to both learn and promote. By 2024 there were some 31 different bottlings in the portfolio, encompassing Mhoba in South Africa, Belize, Fiji, Guyana, Jamaica, Mauritius, Australia, Barbados, Trinidad and Reunion, and there’s no end in sight. Not to discount the sterling work Ed Hamilton did with his Hamilton rums from Guyana and Martinique and Jamaica that blaze the trail of indie imports to the US, it is no exaggeration to say Eric’s brand has probably allowed more Americans to buy a wider diversity of rums than just about anyone else around.

All of which led, if you want to mythologise it, to the sourcing of one of the twelve remaining barrels (out of an original twenty) of pot still distillate which Richard Seale sold to Main Rum back in 2002. Competition was fierce — everyone wanted a piece of something like this, no surprises there — and eventually, through threats, tears, bribes, blandishments and a lot of judicious begging (or so the storyteller in me likes to imagine), Eric managed to score one. He dressed it up nice as an exclusive edition, and released somewhat less than 200 bottles – it’s probably still possible to find one here or there, and can go for north of US$350 so it’s not for the light of purse.

Unsurprisingly, given the source distillery’s reputation, it was hailed as unique and all the usual encomiums followed in a rush from all the usual parties. But in truth it’s not the only rum of this provenance that appeared in the 2022-2023 release season – both Colours of Rum (out of Poland) and Royal Cane (a brand of Infinity Spirits from Amsterdam) also put out 20YO 2002 pot still rums from the distillery, albeit with somewhat less fanfare (and of course Habitation Velier did do a couple of its own pot still editions some years ago). But never mind: these days, when this 2002 4S vintage is mentioned, it’s Holmes Cay that gets the kudos and all the press.

And perhaps they should. The damn thing is rare enough and, while it doesn’t really follow Velier’s path of fully tropical ageing — it was aged in Europe —  twenty years is twenty years and the final result succeeds like nobody’s business, with 51.1% ABV helping it along to make its presence felt. Consider the way it opens: right from the beginning we are getting cedar shavings, fresh sawdust, that sense of sweet damp woody aromas. The fruits follow: citrus, prunes and apricots and other ripe stoned fruit. There’s a surfeit of kitchen spices lurking inside the bouquet: cinnamon, sandalwood, cardamom, turmeric, fenugreek, rosemary and all sorts of other savoury aromas that defy easy classification. Honestly, if I was asked…if you pressed me… I would have to say what it really reminded me of is an old spice soukh in Saudi or Dubai or Kuwait.  It’s that good.

The way it tastes is no slouch either, and presents initially with a nice light series of floral notes. It’s a melange of fruits, leading with watermelon, papaya, then moving to strawberries and sweet Indian mangoes. Some smoky paprika and bell peppers freshly sliced. It has the warm taste of sweet pastries sprinkled with crystal sugar, cinnamon and bubble gum, and the entire time I’m sipping it I’m think appreciatively how well balanced the whole construct is, with no one flavour dominating.  The finish closes up shop really well, with a soft swelling intensity — and all I can think as I taste this rum, savour the crisp tang of ripe fruits and spices, is that it’s nothing shy of spectacular.

When I taste rums, I see colours and memories alongside the aromas and tastes. My imagination goes all over the place, the more so with a good rum that shows us something different, something fascinating, something old done in a new way. Perhaps I would not be able to pick this out as a Barbados rum – let alone one from Foursquare – if I tried it blind.  But it would stay in the mind, remain a mile marker in my appreciation of the brand, as it has ever since I first came across it. In a way I can’t quite explain, it reminds me of love and tenderness and desire, and a bright image of a soft kiss I want from the woman who inhabits my dreams. Any rum that can evoke such feelings is not merely spectacular, it may be nigh priceless. And while admittedly I’m a certifiable romantic and your own mileage will vary, that’s the way I feel about it and to some extent, why I rate it as I do.

(#1067)(91/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐½ 

Other notes

  • For a deeper dive into Holmes Cay and this release, check out Rum Revelations’ article, and their interview, as well as Rumcast’s two episodes, one on the founding of the brand here, and a follow up later (mostly about the Fiji release) here.
  • Looking at various online reviews (and there aren’t a whole lot), I seem to be the one who likes this rum the most. Go figure.
Mar 292024

It’s not often that a rum aged just a few years that remains in development is as good or better than its own unaged white predecessor, but somehow, Retribution from the UK has done a fair dinkum job of it. Their white rum was unpretentious, eager to please and a decent drink that did not try to rearrange your innards (as so many feral whites try to do), and I quite liked it.  Its slightly aged cousin is just a smidgen better, and it still isn’t finished or in open release yet.

Retribution is a small distillery in Frome (a town in Somerset county, in the south west of the  UK) that was started relatively recently in 2019, by a brewer named Richard Lock, who wanted to go beyond the suds he had been making to that point. Something of an auto-didact, he took courses in brewing and distilling at the Herriot-Watt University, and eventually switched over to a distilling operation. He then proceeded to issue a gin as his first product before branching out to whisky and rum. The latter (as of 2024) sports three editions: the white, a spiced and a-still-in-the-barrel aged rum, all made in relatively small quantities for now – it is this last we’re looking at today.

Technical details are the same as for the white rum: the molasses based wash is fermented between one and two weeks using a French sparkling wine yeast; double distillation through the two pot stills — first the one named “Big” (recent acquisition, 1800L) for the stripping run, and then a spirit run through “Little” (400L) — which results in an 80% ABV distillate that was then put to age in ex bourbon barrels in 2021, and diluted down to 44% for a sample exhibit. No additives, or other mucking about, of course, that goes without saying.

Even with the knowledge that this was a work in progress at the time it was tried, I think it was and remains a pretty nifty product. The nose had a nice, crisp citrus-y tang to it, which went well with hot pastries, caramel and vanilla. Oh but it doesn’t stop there: brine, olive oil, steamed cabbages and crisp tom yum soup notes proliferate, before swiftly receding, to be replaced by a more fruity and balanced profile – cherries, mangoes, ripe apples – some 7-up, cloves and greek yoghurt. Not too shabby for something this young and one can only wonder what it would be like were it stronger.

The ABV is more of an issue on the palate, where many rums with good aromas falter. For now, what is tasted is pretty good: the citrus through-line remains, showcasing lemongrass, lime leaves and zest; it is accompanied by unsweetened laban, olive oil, a light briny touch and black rye bread with sour cream and salt (a weird combo, I’ll grant you). Coriander, coconut milk, sour and hot vegetable soup, bitter strong chocolate, toffee, some herbs and soya complete the profile for me, and the finish pretty much sums up everything rather quickly before disappearing.

This is a rum that was brought to the 2023 TWE Rum Show in London for evaluation, and Richard gave me some to try as I was perambulating for two days straight in the most exciting room in the joint.1 I thought it was really quite something, and while it clearly needed some more time to come to a better fruition, even as it was there was little to complain about (Alex Sandhu, in his excellent bio of the company, made a similar point in his review of the still strength sample). The rum will be issued formally in mid 2024 as part of a subscription-based Rum Club release Cask #001, and I hope that it sells well and makes it possible for there to be others of higher and age and even better quality, to come. This one is a really good start.

(#1066)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½


Other notes

  • The question is, why review something not on the market? Whatever comes out the other end in 2024 will surely be different since it’s had another year (at least) of ageing. But it’s actually not the first time I’ve done this: Helios’s Teeda 21 YO Japanese rum was based on an unreleased sample, and so was Mia’s 2018 rum from Vietnam, and there are a few others. I think there are simply some cases where a little pre-release hype and banging of the drum is justified and that’s especially so for micro-distilleries.
  • The logo of the company references the owner’s maritime background and the ship-in-a-bottle models.
Mar 242024

For a distillery with a name as ominous as Retribution, the owner and distiller or record is actually a fairly genial, easy going gent, who gives off vibes of an avuncular uncle who retires after a hard day’s work wherever, to his cottage in the countryside, where the faithful hound fetches his slippers. Or so the story teller in me supposes.

The man behind the company is Richard Lock, who incorporated the micro distillery in 2019 after deciding to go beyond the beers he had been making to that point. His first product was a gin, released in February 2020, with the first rum following a year later and…well, I’d tell you more, but Alex Sandhu of the Rum Barrel has done such a sterling job of biographing Retribution and Mr. Lock, on a physical visit to the distillery, that it would be taking away from his work, and so I provide the link to his company profile for the curious. It’s too bad we don’t get more of these.

In brief, the production notes are as follows: fermentation of the molasses wash is between one and two weeks using a French sparkling wine yeast; and then run through both pot stills (humorously named “Big” and “Little”) which results in an 80% ABV white corker that is then diluted down to a shade above living room strength, 44%. No additives, or other mucking about, which has become almost a badge of honour with these newly established micros, and very welcome.

So let’s get right to it, beginning with the nose. Sweet sugar water, unaggressive but aromatic watermelon and papaya, green apples, grapes, green pears from a can and a general mild vibe that suits the owner quite well. The aromas take some time to come together, and finally open up into mild fruits, strawberry jam, white chocolate, and some tart creamy notes, firm without ever being overbearing. In short, it smells pretty good.

Tastewise it’s also quite a bit more restrained than the rutting white ester stallions of yore which have blotted these pages (well…this website at any rate) and made themselves known. The rum presents as dry and fruit forward, with strawberries, green apples, grapes and some more jam (so the nose, in taste form if one wishes to be accurate), plus some pears, melons, peas and a very faint note of wet earth and vegetables which carries on to an easy finish.

Trying to analyse this and nail down the profile, I want to just say that for an unaged rum it’s really quite fine. A lot of pleasant aromas came out of those pot stills, more than is apparent at first blush, yet nothing too barbaric or strange; and it’s distinguished by having little of that aggressive in-your-face stuff, just some edge, good taste and a mild eagerness to please. That works here in a way that with others, doesn’t always.

Retribution has to some extent been overshadowed by the more hi-falutin’ aggressive fast-moving micro distilleries run by young social-media-savvy entrepreneurs who have received more attention and loom somewhat larger in people’s minds. If you’re thinking of the New Brits and their UK distilleries, Retribution is likely not the first to spring to mind. But my advice is not to count out this little outfit just yet. Pot-still, unaged white rums are still not all that common, most are fierce little brawlers – so there’s space for something more restrained like this one.

It takes gumption and grit to start a distillery of any size in Europe or the UK. It takes skill to make a good low cost, unaged, white rum right out of the gate, And it takes a rare kind of courage to keep at it without the benefit of the cool social media press, even when stuck in a small corner of a big festival, overlooked by many. This is a company we should pay more attention to when festival season comes rolling around this year…because its rums are nothing to sneeze at. Especially this one.

(#1065)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Mar 202024

We’ve heard of both Iridium and Mount Uncle Distillery before: there’s a five year old of that brand that was part of the 2021 advent calendar, and while I didn’t care overmuch for it, I did comment that at a higher strength might make it a better drink. The company – which spun off the rum making business into a separate little outfit called FNQ Rum Company – clearly knew that already, because with this one they amped up the age to 10 years, jacked the strength to 47% and then probably thinking something else was required, aged it in red wine hogsheads for ten years before giving it a last six-month finish in agave casks left over from whatever they were doing with tequilas that year. All this from a cane-syrup seven-day-fermented wash run through their Arnold Holstein 500L pot still.

All that is pretty nice and conforms to some extent to the 5YO as well: but with that rum, one of the issues I ran into was that it didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be: an aged agricole style rum or one more in tune with the broader profiles of the rum world based on molasses. The Iridium X, fortunately for us, navigates quite well between either one and becomes a decent rum by any standard

Take a sniff and you’ll see what I mean: pineapple tarts and cheesecake get together to tango with yoghurt and sour cream and – if you can believe it – ripe tomatoes. There’s a nice, crisp throughline mixing citrus, pineapples, sweetened red grapefruit juice, bitter chocolate, and the dry dustiness of the warm air coming off of vents that have not been used for some time. Oddly, there’s not a whole lot of brine and  heavy agave notes here coming from the casks, though I imagine for those more in tune with this spirit, some could be found.

Palate is a more settled experience, and becomes a clean and relaxed version of the nose. It’s rather tart and piquant, coating the mouth well, and there’s the same yoghurt, honey and citrus axis around which perambulates the lesser notes: these are mostly gingerbread cookies, unsweetened chocolate, olives (red ones) and some brine. If one hangs around and waits a bit, there are also hints of apple cider, figs and some licorice leavened with some toasted marshmallows, but that’s pretty much it.  Finish is nice enough – medium, aromatic, like a sweet balsamic vinegar sprinkled on a grape and tomato forward salad.

Did I like it? Yes indeed, quite a bit more than the 5YO. The complexity is more present and accounted for, and there’s a lot to unpack at one’s leisure. The parts are well assembled without coming to blows over their differences, and overall it’s as solid a ten year old rum as could come out of any of the usual major regions with which we are more familiar. It’s perhaps no accident that the Boutique-y Rum Company took a 12YO Mt. Uncle to be one of its first Australian releases in 2023 that wasn’t Beenleigh.  I haven’t tasted it but if it’s anything like this one it’s sure worth our attentions.

(#1064)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Other notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 15. 
  • The FNQ website is remarkably short on details historical or technical.  Much of the background is from my original research on the Iridium 5YO, which is worth reading in its entirety, as I’ve summarised a lot here.
  • No idea what the significance of the “Iridium” title is. I’ve sent a message along to ask.
  • Mt. Uncle is one of the most northerly distilleries in Australia. Devil’s Thumb (also in QLD) and the Hoochery (in WA) are further north, but not by much.
  • There’s a story that the 10YO is from two lost barrels of the Iridium 5, which is also repeated on the Mt. Uncle website.
  • Although it’s marketed as a limited edition, the exact outturn is unknown. The initial release was 2020 and apparently sufficient stock remains to provide an advent calendar in 2023.
Mar 152024

In the previous review I remarked that the slightly aged añejo from the relatively new San Juan Artisan Distillers in Puerto Rico, did not impress me very much. This was in spite of the fact that on paper they looked like they had all the plant, equipment, and resources they needed to make something better. A fair number of online comments supported this view: most thought it was a barrel thing, although I did get one remark that resonated, stating (paraphrased) that it’s not a good idea to assume that the physical pieces alone are what make the product great or stand above the hoi polloi. That aside, I closed with the observation that with what they had under the hood and bringing to the table, it was unlikely they could stay in the kiddie pool for long. 

This white rum, bottled at the same strength, proves that point nicely and demonstrates yet again – as if it needed to be – that unaged white rum really is in a class by itself and should never be shrugged off just because it looks the same as the filtered white bar staple that gives the “category” a bad name. The production stats aren’t significantly different from the añejo: it’s cane juice derived, fermented for a few days (as best as I can ascertain – this is subject to verification) then double distilled in the charentais pot stills. No ageing.

From that almost stereotypical agricole-style beginning comes a very nice rum indeed, with a pungent, salty, sweaty, earthy, loamy nose.  It smells of grit and damp potter’s soil, and behind that lurks a sort of vague funky aspect that suggests a low-end congener count, like, oh the LFCH or OWH from Hampden, or WPL from Worthy Park. Some nice fruity notes attend, like tangerines, strawberries, bubble gum, mint…that kind of thing.  But it’s very low key and in no way aggressive – the 43% ABV it pulls in with mitigates against any kind of harsh or stinging profile.

The palate corrects some of that is missing when you smell it, most particularly the grassy and herbal notes the nose didn’t seem to want to fork out. The taste provides a sweet, firm, green and grassy profile, with a touch of tart unripe pears and soursop, some yoghurt and even a little aggressive (in a good way). In my mind I genuinely see some rums with colours when tasted – this one would be white and green (channelling Slytherin or something, who knows?), and can be summarised by saying it’s like an addled 7-up with some added mojo. The finish is short but quite solid and fruity, with brine and olive oil and I swear there was a pimento lurking behind there someplace, sensed but never actually confirmed.

Altogether, then, a really solid white rum of the kind I prefer. It must be mentioned that drinking the anejo and the blanco side by side is a useful exercise and it shows how treatment and ageing – transformation, if you will – doesn’t always make for a better rum (I know, I know, this from a guy who loves rums aged four decades and over). It also demonstrates how white and unaged rums without the filtration and bleaching that so infantilizes Bacardi and Lambs and their ilk have no analogue in the whisky world, but are almost unique to rums, and should be given more serious attention. 

This blanco is one of the better whites out there, and redeems my initial opinion of the distillery, which I originally felt was channelling just another Latin style rum with the twist of being from cane juice but without any of the flair. The blanco, however, is pretty damned fine: it has taste, it has aromas, it has character, and I kid you not when I say that it was one of the best things on the table the day I had it.   Hopefully the distillery makes more like it, and stronger.

(#1063)(85/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Other notes

  • Once again, my deep appreciation to Jazz and Indy Anand of Skylark in London. Hanging out at their place to talk and check out rums is always a high point of any trip I make to the UK.
  • A brief company bio can be found below the añejo review.
Mar 102024

The stats by themselves are enough to make a committed rum geek shed a happy tear. It’s from a new distillery in the Caribbean, committed to making artisanal rum from sugar cane it grows itself. It’s pot still distillation: and not just any pot stills, but the charentais cognac stills that Moet Hennesy sold after abandoning their grandiose project to make rums in Trinidad with the aborted Ten Cane brand. Cane juice agricole style rums. Ageing in ex Bourbon casks for between two and three years. 43% ABV, so more than standard proof. No additives. I mean, you read all that, and how can you not be enthused? This is the horse on which French islands and Asian micro-distilleries have ridden to fame and fortune.

And yet, San Juan Artisanal’s Ron Pepón Añejo, Puerto Rico’s first agricole style cane juice rum, is somewhat of a letdown, presenting a lacklustre sort of profile that’s too shy to appeal to the geek squad, not distinctive enough to make it with the cocktail crowd and a hard sell to the majority of drinkers who have quite different ideas as to how both an agricola or a Latin style rum should taste. At best one can say it’s a decent enough starter-kit rum for those who want to dip their toes into cane juice rum (or ron) waters without being challenged by something as off the reservation as, oh, the Sajous. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement

Consider the profile: the nose opens with vanilla, some watery but piquant fruits (pears, watermelon, overripe Thai mangoes), plus unsweetened yoghurt, some salt and pepper. One can discern dates, some figs and a faint metallic iodine and herbal tincture, but let’s be honest, it’s slim pickings to smell. The aromas are faint and very light, lacking some of the crisp assertiveness of an unaged agricole while not being aged enough to get any kind of real boost from the barrels.

This same issue is more noticeable when sipped. There really is not a whole lot going on here, even after one senses vanilla, cinnamon, bitter coffee grounds, mixed in with brine, olives, some iodine, figs and sweet smoky paprika. It’s not that there isn’t something there, it’s just too subtle to make a statement fort itself, and the finish is just disappointing, even if it does lead to a slightly more vegetal, sweet and vanilla lading close. It’s too short and too light, like Bacardis from the old days, which revelled in their anonymity as if it were a badge of honour.

It gives me no real pleasure to mark down a rum made by a bunch of people who work with passion, created a distillery from scratch, and seem to have really tried to come up with something new and interesting (see bio below). And I’m not the only one: a couple of years back LifoAccountant’s observations on the /r/rum subreddit bemoaned several of the same points I do here, and he gave it a rather sub-par 4/10. Almost no other non-marketing reviews exist, so of course there may be others who take the opposite view, that the rum is excellent, and I completely respect that. I just haven’t found any.

Anyway: for now, for me, it’s not good enough to shower it with encomiums. If it’s any consolation, I think any small new distillery that has such interesting equipment and source material and desire to go places, can’t help but succeed in the long term…and so I would chalk this one up to them still finding their rum legs. Because I don’t think they’ll stay in the kiddie pool for long — there’s too much going for them, for me to define or dismiss the entire brand because of one lone rum in their stable for which I didn’t care overmuch. 

(#1062)(78/100) ⭐⭐⭐

Company Bio

San Juan Artisan Distillers is one of the new wave of Puerto Rican companies that seeks to muscle in on the long held territory of the mastodons of that island’s rum scene: Bacardi and Serralles. And while others have mostly gone from rum drinking to starting a distillery, a far more economic rationale was the inception of Pepe Álvarez’s project – his landscape and grass business went belly up when the recession of 2008 hit, coupled with US tax incentives for establishing businesses in PR expiring.

Since he was clearly too young to retire, Álvarez looked around and realized that his experience with grass and a 14 acre farm that had been acquired in 1991 which had grown to about 70 acres by now, offered an opportunity to bootstrap both into something unique to the island: rum made directly from sugar cane juice, not molasses. Starting the new company around 2012. he managed to find an investment from the Puerto Rican government, which paid for the irrigation system, tilling equipment, sugarcane seeds and the purchase of the mill. In so doing Alvarez sourced a German made Arnold Holstein pot still, and when the two charentais pot stills from Trinidad became available after Moet Hennessy pulled out of the Ten Cane project, he snapped those up too, and to back them up, he started his own cane fields, since commercial sugar cane growing in the island was a discontinued industry. 

And this wasn’t all: his son Jose joined the company after getting his civil engineering degree, and Luis Planas the former master blender of Bacardi (now working for Ron de Barrellito) was asked to consult. As if that kind of horsepower was not enough, Frank Ward (ex-Managing Director at Mount Gay) provided advice on consult.

Initially the idea was to produce an agricola-style series of rums, to be released around 2017, at which point Hurricane Maria decided to derail that plan, demolished all the cane fields and left the island without power for almost a year. Undeterred, Alvarez used stocks he sourced from the Dominican Republic to make a series of fruit-infused rums with the brand name of “Tresclavos” (which, for those with memories of 1423’s unfortunately named sub-brand is not a combination of “Tres” and “esclavos” but “tres clavos” — ‘three nails’). These were well received and have become island staples, which allowed the fledgling company to weather the destruction of the fields so well that small batches of the new Ron Pepon were ready to go by 2018 with other stocks being laid down to age. 

The global pandemic impacted the company as much as any other but has managed to come out the other side, and in 2022 had both an unaged white rum and a 30-month or so aged variant to present, which started selling stateside and appearing in Europe. So far the brand is not a huge seller or a famed name, but its reputation is starting to be known. 

The place is experiencing growth — they now employ a staff of about six, built a visitor’s centre, have those amazing pot stills, still make only cane juice rum and various personages give them visibility (my friends from the Rumcast interviewed them in October 2022 as part of their Puerto Rican distillery roundup); and there have been several new stories abut them. It’s just a matter of time before they attain greater visibility and greater fame, and expand that series of rums they make. It’ll be worth waiting for, I think.

Other notes

  • “Pepón” stands for “Old Pepe” and is a nod to Alvarez’s father, also named Pepe.
  • My thanks to Jazz and Indy Anand of Skylark in London, in whose convivial company I tried this rum after filching it from their stocks. I don’t have “crash and pass out under the sink” privileges in Indy’s place: however, free access to the shelves of rum in every room more than makes up for that. Thanks and kudos as always, guys.
Mar 032024

It’s not entirely clear why the little Brittany-based independent bottler L’ESprit – for which I have retained an enormous fondness over the years – advertises so little and keeps such a low profile. One never sees them at rum festivals, Tristan Prodhomme is practically unknown among the pantheon of small-company personalities, the company is more wedded to whisky than to rum…and yet the rums this one little outfit does release have a really good track record, people do treasure the ones they get and I would always take a second look myself, if one crossed my path: it’s one of the few indies whose wares I actively seek out and keep an eye open for.

L’Esprit has, since its inception, gone through the whole gamut of what’s possible: they have released aged and unaged rums, standard strength or still strength, represented pretty much all the major rum producing countries out there (and a few minor ones), and in a nice touch, sometimes issue the same rum at two different strengths – standard and full proof. Today’s rum comes from Foursquare: it’s the usual pot-column blend characteristic of the famed distillery, distilled in November 2005, bottled in October 2020 (so a neat 15 years old), 60.5% and as far as I know, aged in ex-bourbon barrels.

From those stats you can guess it’s a rum of furious and tasty brutality, and that’s not far off. The nose lunges from the bottle in an initial attack of pungent nutty and fruity notes, very intense. It is, one should note in passing, extremely nice too; it follows up with an uppercut of caramel, salt, acetones and the boiling scent of an “under final touch ups” stage of a new house in the hot summer — acetones, plastic turpentine and floor wax (clearly more pot still in action here). Then it seems to want to calm down and more restrained aromas come through – strawberries, unsweetened chocolate, tinned fruit syrup, dark honey, leather and port infused damp tobacco.  That’s quite a lot for any rum to be providing, no matter who makes it.

Clearly slowing down is not in this bottle’s bag of tricks: it continues to go strongly, like a bat out of hell, on this and every subsequent tasting (the glass is with me for the best part of a full day): it’s sweet, dry, aromatic, tasty. Green peas, syrup again, pears, stewed apples, tinned peaches, which is all pretty much what one could expect. But it does have some kinks as well, tastes that are somewhat odd — pleasant enough but almost unfamiliar, the way these components come together. Plastic, kerosene (just a touch), balsamic vinegar, mangoes in a very hot pepper sauce, that kind of thing. The edge and savagery is always just behind the sweet and more aromatic side of the profile, waiting to pounce if you treat it with anything less than respect. It all leads to a medium short finish (which, admittedly, is surprising for something that has to this point been going full steam), with not a whole lot more. Fleshy stoned fruits, some caramel and vanilla, strawberries, and the glue and wax make a short bow before scampering back offstage. 

And that’s it. It’s the sort of neat pour that will leave you gasping a bit but also pleased to have been able to finish it. Overall it’s solid, and easily buffs the credentials of both producer and bottler to a brighter gleam.  It has a seriously good nose with everything we like included, which is then sanded to a shine and bolted on to an anvil-heavy series of tasting notes that don’t seek to reinvent the wheel (or Foursquare), but simply present the best of which this particular barrel is capable. It’s like Tristan found a barrel he liked so much that it was only by the most supreme effort of will that he didn’t slap an ECS label on it – because that’s the only thing I can compare it to, and that’s what it really is. I call mine “Truculentus”.

(#1061)(86/100) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Feb 272024

One thing I have always enjoyed about the Australian distilleries (aside from their cool origin stories) is the irreverent naming. While many are completely straightforward owners’ or geographical names, there are some that enjoy a cheeky wink too, like Brix, Tin Shed, Boatrocker, Red Hen, Jimmy Rum or Winding Road. And of course there are those that take it even further, with names as evocative as Devil’s Thumb, Hoochery, Hippocampus…or Mad Monkey, the subject of today’s review.

Below this quick review is a more in depth company backgrounder: for now, what do we have in the glass? The tech sheet is as follows: molasses sourced from New South Wales, deriving from sugarcane farmed in the Condong, Broadwater, and Harwood villages and their associated sugar mills, all founded in the late 1800s; fermentation time is nine days at a peak of 26°, utilising a wild yeast and ale yeast blend (some bacteria coming from dunder), then run through the 500L pot still, and set to age in an ex-Seppeltsfield port cask for 30 months, with the first year upstairs on the mezzanine floor (more sunshine), thereafter on the distillery floor. It’s then diluted down to 44% ABV and that gives enough to fill 163 70cl bottles (which suggests small cask, not a full sized one).

Keeping it short, the nose first: it immediately provides oily, sweet, honey-like aromas, into which one can detect ripe yellow mangoes, orange juice, wasabi and even some sushi drizzled with lemon juice and sweet soya…which, admittedly, is quite an opener. It also channels some new leather furniture freshly unwrapped out of plastic, prunes, some ginger and coffee grounds, and has a crisp sort of sweetness to it that after a few minutes kind of dissipates into something thinner, and sharper.

And the taste, my, that’s lovely! Caramel, bonbons, bourbon, leather, smoke, prunes and dark unsweetened chocolate meld well together with a texture that isn’t too aggressive (the 44% is a good choice for this). Occasional rough patches and some sharpness don’t detract, really – it’s what one can expect from a fast-aged young rum from a smallish cask. Anyway, there are hints of stewed apples, molasses, licorice, honey, peaches in syrup and an overall depth of sensation and flavour that are really quite good. Even the finish is no slouch – it’s short but very aromatic, with closing notes of raspberry jam, honey and burnt brown sugar.

This is a product that is solidly, traditionally, “rummy” – it wouldn’t be out of place being drunk out of plastic tumblers, chased with coconut water, while dominos are being smashed down on a plywood table in Tiger Bay or Trenchtown. It channels a nice mix of Demerara rums and Latin type rons, combining some lighter notes with heavier, duskier ones that lend a tasty counterpoint. It’s perhaps too much to ask for serious complexity and exquisitely aged quality in a rum less than three years old – the roughness and occasional snide spiciness of the palate, and the rapid fall-off of the nose all show this – yet overall, there’s something pretty good here, and you can see this is an outfit that isn’t mucking around. 

Converted to US$ this is a hundred buck rum (Australian spirits taxes are extortionate) and that’s a lot to ask for not only a newcomer without a track record, but a young newcomer. Australians, lacking something of the international choice we take for granted, may think otherwise. Rightly so, in my opinion, because from where I’m sitting, this young rum is pointing to some serious sh*t coming our way from that distillery in another five years, and rummies Down Under probably know that way ahead of us, and are stocking up.

(#1060)(84/100) ⭐⭐⭐½

Photo (c) Mad Monkey Distillery, from their website

Company Background

The distillery, located in the southern city of Adelaide was envisioned in 2018 by two amateur distillers (the unkind would say ‘moonshiners’) named Scott McCarthy and Alec McDowall (who now refer to themselves as the original addled simians, or “Crooked Finger” and “Red Beard” depending on the time of day); they met at a distilling conference at Seppeltsfield (Scott worked as a brand ambassador for Seppeltsfield Road Distillers), compared notes, and bonded over what the storyteller in me supposes is several bottles of unspeakably vile hooch and all sorts of intoxicated plans that normal people forget the next morning. Two years later, having sobered up, regained their sight and become business partners, they opened Mad Monkey Distillery in the industrial area of the city, in an old unused warehouse office. There they brought their hybrid 500L still called “Albert”, festooned their cellar door garden with a lawn, tiki huts, a wood-oven pizza van, and not being happy with all that, added an orchard and a beehive just because, well, they could. Then they got to work, all the while keeping their day jobs.

Initially they produced the usual “cane spirit” which is what rum under two years old is generally called, and have now taken that to the next level by infusing such distillates with fruits from their orchard and even using the pollinating bees from the apiary to develop yeast strains of their own – clearly, everything on the premises has to earn its keep. For the most part they stayed resolutely local, marketing their rums around the city, and have only slowly begun expanding outside these environs. During COVID shutdowns, they took advantage of the lull to set down a more consistent barrel ageing program and by 2022 and 2023 had the requisite two years of ageing in some of their barrels, enough to begin selling “rum” instead of the unaged stuff. By this time (2022) they had become successful enough to take a deep breath and quit the rat race, and have devoted themselves full time to the distillery: they have called it the first dedicated rum distillery in Adelaide, a claim which is likely true, since they don’t really make anything else, unlike the kitchen-sink ethos of many others in the joint. That sure impresses me, given the economics of their chosen field.

Other notes

  • From the 2023 Australian Advent Calendar, Day 6. This is Batch #2 from 2021. Batch #1 was introduced in 2022, I think
  • The use of a distinctive bottle shape is pretty cool. Kind of makes the rum stand out on a shelf. It was also deliberately chosen (the supplier calls the style “pirate”) to stand out, since at the time of selection, the majority of bottles holding Australian spirits were the cheapest available, making for a bland and uniform look that MM wanted to avoid.
  • Seppeltsfield is a winery just NE of Adelaide. “Tawny” is a fortified port wine they make.
  • When I asked about the distillery name, Alex responded “Mad Monkey came from my long want to name a business after something Monkey related, (Monki has long been a handle of mine) and the Mad bit is coined to the wild black magic type fermentation of rum!” Can’t argue with that logic.
  • The form of the logo is similar to both the Leipzig Trade Fair in Germany and Matugga rums. I guess there are only so many ways to artistically render two “M”s.